Finding the Best of Old, New on the Big Island

O'Sullivan is a travel writer based in Canoga Park

We just got back from our first visit to Hawaii. All we had known about those islands before we went was what we'd read and a few things we'd heard from friends.

One of them, talking about Waikiki, said, "Nobody goes there any more because it's too crowded."

Worse, others said that the Old Hawaii was "fading fast and that the old ways would soon be gone."

Our first three days were at Waikiki. The palms; the trade winds; the scent of plumeria and dozens of other flowers, a sea with hundreds of greens and blues. We loved it all. That Hawaii was intact.

But the other complaint, that Hawaii "was slipping further and further from the old ways," was a little harder to deal with or even define.

On our fourth day we flew to the Big Island. We were going for a continuation of our vacation, but because some of the experts had said that the first settlers had gone to the Big Island first, it seemed a likelier place to look for answers.

Biggest Island

The state of Hawaii is the whole archipelago. But the southernmost island of Hawaii, the "Big Island," is the largest of the group. It is also, at a million years, so young that it's still under "construction."

Mauna Kea, one of its two volcanoes, is in eruption. Its lava, flowing across the land and into the sea, makes the island a little bigger each day. Evidence of earlier eruptions is everywhere.

Kona Airport is on part of an 1801 lava flow. For the entire 25-mile drive north from the airport to our first hotel, the Mauna Lani Bay, the road was over uninterrupted lava beds.

At a small sign saying Mauna Lani Bay, we turned off the highway. Suddenly, we weren't driving through the shiny black flow-lava anymore. We were in a green belt of golf courses and trees, then lush vegetation.

The hotel and its grounds were startling. Just past the reception area was an atrium, a half-acre open to the sky, with growing flowers, shrubs, trees reaching up six floors, birds and even a lagoon and waterfalls.

For the next three days, though, we both felt some mistake had been made, that we were in Shangri-La rather than Hawaii.

We moved to our next hotel, the Hyatt Regency Waikoloa, a few miles farther up the road, simply because we'd heard so much about it.

If the Mauna Lani had seemed a little out of place, the Hyatt Regency Waikoloa was another world entirely. It had 1,600 rooms, and you had the option of taking either a boat or a train to get to and from the main lobby. Management advised you to allow 15 minutes to make the trip.

It didn't seem to bother Joyce, so I kept myself in check, figuring I could always wax indignant later. But what with the pools, lagoons, trade winds and flowers, after an hour or so I couldn't remember, to save my neck, what I had wanted to be indignant about. The New Hawaii wasn't so bad.

Later, at dinner with other hotel guests, the subject of the Islands' past "slipping away" came up again. There was some debate as to just what that past was.

Was it Don Ho and a rum drink? Was it ukuleles and hula girls? Or was it a people living on fish, poi, breadfruit and pineapple, waiting and never knowing what they were waiting for, unless it was for Pele to make her next move?

One woman told me that if I was really looking for the Old Hawaii I ought to be talking to an old Hawaiian, and she had just the right person in mind.

"The man is 64 years old. . . ."

"Incredible," I said. "People still get that old?"

His name was Jimmy Tohara and he was the chief plumber at another hotel, the Mauna Kea.

Golf Courses and Gardens

The next morning while Joyce had breakfast in bed, I drove to another oasis of golf courses and gardens, in the center of which was the Mauna Kea. It was magnificent.

Jimmy Tohara had a smile that filled his whole face. As we walked to a place where we could talk, I told him how impressed I was with his workplace. He seemed to take it personally.

"You know, this is one of the oldest hotels on the Kohala Coast," Jimmy said. "I've worked here for 25 years and I still notice the beauty every day. Everything belongs--art pieces, even the people.

"Some of us have been here most of our lives, and our children come to work here, too. We get second-generation guests. When something gets this right, you don't want to change it."

He led me into a dining room that was not serving and we sat down. Jimmy's reaction to my "old ways" question surprised me.

"You want to know whether we're getting away from the old ways? I hope so. This is a land where, at one time, the penalty for letting your shadow fall on the pathway of the king was instant death. Where a child born with anything wrong, even a birthmark, was not allowed to live. Old ways? "

A Little Problem

He raised his brows, took off his glasses and polished them.

"I don't think people even want the 'not-quite-so-old' ways."

Jimmy told me about something that had happened 25 years before. When the hotel had been new there had been a little problem with the water. Though it was pure, on its way down from the snows on 13,000-foot Mauna Loa it tended to acquire the color of tea.

"One of the guests called me," he said. "She said, 'Look at that water. It's brown. You can't expect me to bathe in that water, much less drink it.' "

"There was nothing I could do. I acted like I was really offended. 'Lady,' I said, 'that water comes from the Goddess Pele. You have heard of King Kamehameha with his bodyguard so big and strong. Seven feet tall with muscles hard as teak. It's because all their lives they drink this water. No other water, this water.'

Natural Springs

At that point he poured himself a glass of water, drank it down, took a deep breath, stood up as straight as he could and left. "I was trying to grow before her eyes. It must have worked. I never heard from her again."

He laughed at the memory. "Now we tap natural springs and the water is as clean and clear as the sky."

"A long time ago I found a couple of steering sweeps, the big oars they put on canoes to steer with. I cleaned them up and put them on the wall.

"When people asked me what they were, I told them they were blades from Hawaiian helicopters, that we had them here hundreds of years ago and that we didn't need engines because we always had the trade winds."

Then I said, "You aren't above making up a legend yourself."

"I would never do that," he said, trying to keep his face straight. "But that business about bad luck coming to people who take the lava rock from Pele's volcanoes for souvenirs . . . you know how that started?

"I heard it was a bus driver who got tired of all the tourists bringing the dirty rocks onto his nice clean bus, so he made up the legend."

"Jimmy," I asked, "would you take a lava souvenir from the volcano?" The question seemed to startle him.

"You think I'm crazy?!" he said with a laugh.

"But most of our legends can be explained," he said. "Hawaiian fishermen throw a bucket over the side, bring up water and drink it. Haoles (foreigners) try it, get sick and a legend is born. Hawaiians can drink sea water. Hawaiians are magic."

"How do they do that?" I asked. He ignored the question.

"Magic, I tell you, magic. A million years, maybe all our lava breaks down into soil, huh? The people who build these hotels don't want to wait; they crush the lava, bring in topsoil and fill it with plantings from all over the Pacific Basin.

"And birds, do you think they would be here? These hotels brought in the birds. Now there are birds all over the Kohala Coast, and they take the seeds of our flowers all over the island.

"Because of these hotels there is employment where there was none before and visitors can come from all over the world to enjoy Hawaii. I think maybe the new ways are worth considering too, huh?

"Tomorrow night there will be a hukilau on the beach, at the Royal Waikoloan, a luau with fish instead of pork. You go and take your wife and you may see some of the best of the old ways."

I was mad at myself for feeling any resentment about the big hotels' "intrusions." I had not considered how they figured in the island's economy and how their existence made advancement possible for so many people.

Back at the hotel, the information was available. Since opening in 1988 the Waikoloa resort alone has pumped an estimated $50 million into Hawaii's economy.

$4,000 a Day

It spent $4,000 a day on produce alone that it bought from farmers. It required so much staff that the hotel had to run daily buses to Hilo, on the other side of the island, to bring people to work and then take them home.

Joyce and I went to the hukilau on the beach the next night. Young people in native costume danced against a background of the sea and a setting sun to the music of drums, ukuleles and the trade winds in the palms.

When it got dark, torches were lighted and food was served.

Toward the end of the evening I talked with one of the girls who had been dancing for us. I told her about how I'd been asking around about the Old Hawaii and of what I'd learned so far.

I told her that it was probably good that the islands were changing, that the local people were getting a share of the prosperity. It might have been that I couldn't keep the disappointment out of my voice.

She touched my arm.

"No," she said, "don't feel that way. I know what you feel. I have children and I'm grateful that, thanks to the people who visit us, I'll be able to send them to college. But because we have gained something it doesn't mean we've lost anything.

"It's all still here."

She took my hands.

"All my life my grandmother would take my hands, like this, and look into my eyes and say, 'Hold on, hold on.' I think it was the last thing she said to me before she died. 'Hold on.'

"We have a word-- malama. It means 'stewardship,' a knowing and caring stewardship. My grandmother had taught me and my mother the old ways, as her mother had taught her. She was telling me to hold on to them, hold on to the traditions. Don't ever let them go. And I haven't, and neither will my children and their children. The old ways are here."

I nodded toward the torch-lighted stage amid the palms. "Here?"

"No." She touched the area over her heart. "Here."

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